It seems to me that 90% of parenting you have to learn from experience, as you go. You can read books, have friends tell you all the dirty details, consult the experts, but until you find yourself discussing the consistency of poop at dinner with the neighbours you probably didn’t know what you were going to do, or what you’d have to do, to raise an infant to adulthood.
In light of that, there are some things about parenting that I did not get as a parent of only one child. It was the experience of parenting multiple kids that taught me these little truths. **Here I must insert my disclaimer to say that I don’t mean this to be condescending to parents of a single child, whether it be by choice, by accident, or because they just haven’t had their future kids yet. I am only speaking to my experience of having learned these things through the act of parenting two or more kids. This isn’t an attack on parents of one, especially given the fact that even if parents of one never learn these things, they have other strengths and positives in their situation that I will never have the chance to experience.**
Here’s what I know now, that I didn’t know when I only had Rain:
It wasn’t all my parenting. It was mostly the kid. Sure, I’ve had some positive effects on my kids…but all that smugness, thinking that I’d done all these things right (or for that matter, even the guilt about the things I thought were my fault)? So much of it is just the personality of the child or the circumstances at the time. My son was toilet trained in 6 weeks. My daughter took 6 months. I don’t get points for any of it, except maybe being willing to go with the flow.
Every kid has the potential to be an asshole. And an angel. Yes, even mine. And yours. You know that mama bear reaction you have when a bigger kid on the playground is being mean, aggressive, or bossy to your kid? When they throw sand in your baby’s face, or snatch a toy, or kick your sweet darling in the back because they went down the slide before your kid got off? You know that feeling when you look at the other child, thinking that he’s totally rude and aggressive, downright nasty, maybe even a brat (and you haven’t even gotten started on all the ways it’s the mother’s fault). Your kiddo seems so little still next to the other kids and you are biologically programmed to want to protect them from all harm.
How about this? Your three year old is throwing a tantrum and has accidentally punched your three day old baby in the stomach. Your first reaction is to protect your baby, and you feel yourself going mama bear on your precious first born. But then you see how he’s hurting and confused and still little too. You realize that it could be your kid on the playground being mean, aggressive or bossy to someone younger and you love him anyway. You realize that all the kids out there are sometimes the rough ones, the selfish ones, the rude ones, and sometimes, the sweet ones, the funny ones, the little ones. When your kid is going through a difficult phase, you recognize it as a developmental stage or the full moon or a long day or a bad mood and worry less about what that means in the long term. You finally understand that they aren’t defined by a snapshot of their behaviour on any given day – they are all of that and more.
After that, it’s a lot easier to be charitable to other people’s kids, and to your own, when they don’t play nice.
A little crying isn’t the end of the world. With my firstborn, every time he cried it was earth shatteringly upsetting to me. I jumped to soothe and fix it every time. Once you have two kids that just isn’t possible, and while I’m still a responsive, caring parent, I have also learned that not all crying means the baby is traumatized. As adults, we equate crying with sadness, with upset, and as such, I tended to think that every time Rain cried he was really sad and I would get really upset if I couldn’t stop the crying immediately. But babies cry to communicate all kinds of things: hunger, urgency, anger, frustration, sadness, and more. I still don’t practice Cry It Out and I don’t ignore my babies, but when I’m helping a toddler learning to use the potty and the baby is fussing for a feed, I am able to recognize that the baby is just telling me he’s hungry. He may want to eat NOW and he might not like waiting but he is learning and he won’t be permanently scarred by waiting until I’ve got that bum wiped. Now I can manage all of that without crying myself.
The more you read the sleep books, the more likely you aren’t in a good place. All three of my kids have been “bad sleepers.” They woke hourly from five months to sometime between 18 months and two years of age. I’ve gone through all the stages of grief on this: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I’ve blamed myself, my husband, the kid, God, co-sleeping, and nursing. I’ve tried co-sleeping, using a crib, nursing to sleep, not nursing to sleep, Dr. Jay Gordon’s night-weaning in the family bed, having Aaron put the baby to bed, sleeping on the couch for a year, the Baby Whisperer’s E.A.S.Y. method, keeping sleep logs, introducing a lovey, The No Cry Sleep Solution, even (on a few desperate ill-fated occasions) Cry It Out, and I’ve read a lot of books about how to help my babies sleep.
The thing is I only ever read those books when I was in one of the first four stages of grief. It certainly wasn’t coming from a place of acceptance. I was usually desperately trying to fix the problem, and all that desperate trying, rocking, holding a crying baby, watching the clock, counting wake ups, and reading advice that made it seem as if it would all magically get better if I could somehow get it right, just left me in a raging depression. Now? The third time around, the books are my litmus test. If I reach for the sleep books, I know it’s not going to go well. It’s a sure sign that I’m not doing well and that I need a break and some help with my attitude. There’s a Buddhist saying that says “don’t push the river.” I’ve decided to stop pushing the river. Inevitably, if I relax and wait (and submit, and say no to commitments, and don’t take on too much), another tooth will push through and I’ll have a good night that keeps me going when it gets bad again. And I keep the sleep books in a box in storage.
So tell me – what were you surprised to learn on the second, third, or fourth go around at this parenting gig?